Thursday, May 24, 2018

HOW TO OPTIMIZE BLACK AND WHITE PHOTOGRAPHS





Lately I have received a lot of compliments regarding my black and white photographs, as a matter of fact, many have asked for an explanation of what I do to arrive at the final photographs.  Unfortunately there is no simple answer, but it is not an unsurmountable task either.  The market offers a number of software choices, all of which enable the user to greatly improve their photographs, in color as well as black and white.

My choice has been Photoshop ever since it was introduced in 1988.  I am fully aware that Photoshop, or similar programs, have a lot of opponents, and Photoshop certainly offers the ability to alter a photograph way beyond it original look and purpose.  That is not what I am talking about.  My reason for using Photoshop is to take a photograph as it comes out of the camera and improve it to offer the best possible end result.

That is nothing new at all.  Analog photography, then as well as now, requires the same or at least similar approach.  Just as a straight print from most any negative will rarely be as good as it could be, a straight print, right off your digital camera files will most likely have similar issues.

Arguments that a print should be exactly like what the camera saw, or similar opinions are frankly a bunch of nonsense.  When printing analog, from a negative, it is necessary to adjust exposure as well as the correct contrast level.  Then, in addition, it is often necessary to dodge and burn and to utilize other trickery to achieve as good a print as necessary.  Anyone who has ever followed some of the great analog photographers like Ansell Adams, Edward Weston, Helmut Newton and many more will know that taking a photograph was nothing more than the beginning of the process of creating a great photograph.  As Ansell Adams once said,

“The negative is the score, the print is the performace.”

The same is the case with digital photography.  Just because we have automatic features that a generation or two ago could only have dreamed about, our cameras are incapable of producing the perfect photograph without any further input. 

Unfortunately, that is where it ends with many camera users these days.  The internet is full of lousy pictures that are not worthy of a lowly Instamatic, leave alone a Leica.  The results are pictures of poor composition, poor color correction and a severe lack of tonality, just to mention a few.


I fully realize that many photographers simply don’t have the knowledge to see these mistakes.  What I don’t understand is when, upon some constructive criticism, the comeback is,

“But I like it that way.”

I heard that phrase ad nauseam during my over 13 years of teaching photography.  In spite of paying thousands of dollars in tuition, a valid critique was for many unacceptable.

But enough of being on my soap box and on to the topic of this article.  I do shoot all of my photographs in color although a Leica Monochrom just will not disappear from my wish list.  The reason is that quite often I come across photographic opportunities that lend themselves equally well to be in color as well as black and white.  Thus I prefer to make that final decision when looking at the results on my monitor.

I am aware of the advantages of shooting RAW and for very important jobs I certainly do so.  I feel my clients deserve that.  But for myself, I have no problem shooting JPEG files, however always with the least amount of compression.  After a simple conversion to black and white in Photoshop, I save the black and white image as a separate file.  This allows me to compare both side by side before making the final decision of color or black and white.

One I have a file that I want to be in black and white, I make no further manipulations before opening the image in “Bridge.”  A right click on the chosen image allows opening the file in “Camera Raw” even though it is a JPEG file.  That offers a huge amount of manipulations, beyond simple Photoshop.  

The first thing I do is click on “White Balance” and switch from “As Shot” to “Auto”.  That will switch the image to a very slight brown or sepia tone which I like better than the cold tones from the Photoshop black and white conversion.


Next are some initial “Exposure” or “Brightness” corrections if necessary.  The same goes for “Contrast.”  At this point the image should already show some definite improvements over the basic starter image, but further evaluation is usually necessary.


I always told my students that black and white means just that.  If at all possible, or final prints should have a tonality from deep black to pure white.  That by itself is not difficult to do.  Simply increase contrast and you will definitely end up with black and with white.  The trick is to adjust the blacks and whites, but also all tones in between in a manner that no detail is being lost.  For this Bridge offers several possibilities:

Clicking on the “Tone Curve” symbol close to the top allows fine adjustments for “Highlights”, “Lights”, “Darks” and “Shadows.”  How much of these adjustments are necessary is ultimately a judgment call.  Be careful because these adjustments will influence the image as a whole.  But when used correctly, it is definitely possible to get rich blacks in the shadows, blacks where only the very darkest areas a totally black, but areas just a bit lighter will maintain detail.  The same is true for the highlights as well as the lights and darks.  What is being done here is simply extending the tonal range of the photograph beyond what the camera was able to do on its own.


Next to the “Tonal Curve” symbols is “Sharpening” and “Noise Reduction.”  This allows isolating especially fine detail from its background and, when shooting with relatively high ISO values, the resulting noise can be noticeably decreased.  But care must be taken because noise reduction beyond a certain point will definitely lead to a loss in detail and sharpness.

At this point the final image should have emerged, or at least an image that is very close.  Earlier I mentioned dodging and burning, a technique often used with analog printing.  Digital printing is no different.  It offers the same possibilities.  When opening the image by clicking on “Open Image” at the bottom, the image will open in standard Photoshop.  This offers additional adjustments.  For instance, with the “Magic Wand” tool we can isolate the sky from the rest of the image and lighten or darken it, if necessary.  If more precision is necessary, the “Lasso” tool or preferably the “Polygonal Lasso” tool will do the trick.  The “Burn Tool” or the “Dodge Tool” can be used to make some final adjustments by allowing lightening or darkening of selected areas, down to very fine detail.

For the final image I used the dodge and burn tool to selectively lighten and darken small areas to 
extend the tonal range of the image

The end result will be a photograph way beyond what originally came out of the camera.  This is not altering the image beyond what the camera saw or what the camera was supposed to photograph, it is simply a means to show everything the camera recorded.  We just make it all visible and by doing so end up with much better photographs.


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Wednesday, May 23, 2018

CORRECTING A MISTAKE IN PORTRAIT LIGHTING





I took this portrait some time ago with a Leica Digilux 2 and I thought it didn’t turn out too bad.  Since then I have posted it several times and always received very positive comments on it.  Not so when my sister saw it a while back.

We both followed in the footsteps of our father in becoming professional photographers.  Since then she has turned into a very accomplished portrait photographer with numerous award winning photographs.

Her comment regarding this photograph was “Nicht sehr gut.  Lichtzange.”  Nicht sehr gut (not very good) caught my attention.  Unfortunately, the emphasis is on the word Lichtzange which is one of those words for which there is no direct translation.  After all, what does “light pliers” mean?  It refers to lighting where two light sources are competing with each other by illuminating the subject from opposite directions.

One basic approach to lighting her portraits was always that there is only one sun.  Because of that we are all accustomed to see things with light coming from only one direction.  She has always followed her studio lighting along that principle and so have I - usually.

Of course, studio lighting allows for considerable variations, and her approach certainly is not carved in stone.  But her comment made me take another look and I have to say, she is right.

Looking at the original result, it is obvious that I used two light sources from opposite direction.  The result is that the left side of the model (the right side of the photograph) is much too light.  It totally contradicts the more dramatic lighting on the right side.

I have always promoted to set up portrait lighting by visually controlling it.  Preconceived ideas and lighting by numbers (lighting ratios) will never take the individual in front of the camera into consideration.  That is one of the reasons why I consider modeling lights so very important.  They allow you to see what the lighting actually looks like.  They prevent a lot of trial and error work.


Well, this is one instance where I didn’t see what I was actually doing.  So is this something that can be corrected?  The answer is “sort of”.  I don’t agree at all looking at Photoshop as a means to correct mistakes.  It is always preferable to avoid mistakes in the first place.  But I gave it a try.  After all, the mistake had been made.  So I darkened much of the left side of the model to make the fill light much less pronounced.  In addition I worked on the right side of the face by lightening the shadows, again to lessen the effect of the fill light.


The result is far from perfect.  That would require correct lighting in the first place.  But I think it is a definite improvement.  What do you think?  Comments are very much welcome.


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